God’s mercy is infinite, but we can limit how much we receive. This lesson in this week’s Gospel comes from an old insight of Israelite wisdom, which Jesus makes a centerpiece of his teaching.
‘Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ (Mt 18:33)
How have you experienced mercy from God? From another person?
How can a deeper trust in grace help you release the debt of another?
Israelite wisdom literature had long encouraged acts of forgiveness and mercy. Consider Ps 37:8, which warns of the danger of rage: “Refrain from anger; abandon wrath; do not be provoked; it brings only harm.” This week’s responsorial psalm takes this insight even further, affirming that forgiveness makes us like God, who “will not always chide, nor does he keep his wrath forever” (Ps 103:9). In our first reading, Sirach affirms the benefits of mercy: “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” Sirach even identifies such forgiveness with faithfulness to the covenant, probably thinking of Lev 19:18, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This line from Leviticus inspired Jesus as well. It comes up often in his teachings, especially those recorded by Matthew, who inherited the same Israelite wisdom (Mt 5:43, 19:19, 22:39).
Echoes of this lengthy tradition appear throughout Matthew’s Gospel, in his version of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, and in teachings like Mt 7:2: “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus reveals that our capacity to receive God’s mercy is proportionate to the generosity we show with our own.
A careful study of today’s parable yields lessons for discipleship. One is that forgiveness requires transformation. The king expected his mercy to change the future behavior of his servant. Specifically, the king expected his servant to do in the future as he himself had done.
Second, forgiveness does not mean the restoration of some past state, even were that possible. The world is constantly changing. The king did not forgive his servant in an effort to get his money back. He simply accepted his loss and moved on (though one suspects that he did not continue to entrust this particular servant with any more of his money).
A third lesson comes from the size of the king’s write-off. In the Greek, the phrase “huge amount” reads “10,000 talents,” roughly 60 million days’ wages. This was close to a third of the yearly expenditure on the Roman army. And yet the king felt he could be compassionate. He trusted that his other resources could help him rebuild his treasury. Just so, we must have similar confidence that divine grace will heal whatever damage we have suffered.
Such confidence will help us avoid the servant’s fate. Unlike the king, who trusted that he could recover from his loss, the servant feared his own poverty. This fear drove him to violence against another over a trivial amount. The difference between the servant and the king, then, is one of trust. God’s mercy is infinite. We who trust in God’s grace will discover no limits to our own mercy. The converse is true as well: We who cultivate mercy will find an infinite store waiting for us when we meet God.